After making two unsuccessful pilots at ABC, Norman Lear got the greenlight from CBS for “All in the Family,” his comedy series that changed the face of sitcoms. But the award-winning producer, writer and political activist recalled that the first episode of the series, which aired on Jan. 12, 1971, almost didn’t make it on the air.
It wasn’t because the network was nervous that the series revolved around a working-class, uneducated and outspoken bigot named Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), who referred to every minority in the most politically incorrect of terms. Instead, CBS was worried about a reference to sex that would be considered tame today.
On Tuesday, the Shout! Factory is releasing the entire series, 208 episodes that ran from 1971-79, as a DVD set. Although there were many classic sitcoms before “All in the Family,” including “I Love Lucy” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” no one had ever seen a reprehensible yet lovable character like Archie, who lived with his family at 704 Hauser St. in Queens.
The series was brilliant, daring, funny and poignant. Over the seasons, “All in the Family” explored racism, homosexuality, women’s liberation, menopause, impotence, the Vietnam War and the loss of faith. It was the No. 1 series for five years, won 22 Emmys including four for comedy series, and boasted several spinoffs: “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “Archie Bunker’s Place” and “704 Hauser.” (“All in the Family” was also the first sitcom for Tandem Productions founded in 1958 by Lear and Bud Yorkin.)
But the beginning, as Lear, 90, recalled in a phone interview last week, was a little rough.
The opening episode, titled “Meet the Bunkers,” found Archie’s daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and her college student husband, Mike (Rob Reiner), whom Archie referred to as “Meathead,” getting the table ready for a surprise anniversary brunch for Archie and his sweetly clueless wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton), while they were at church on Sunday.
“Mike kisses Gloria and he wants to go upstairs and she doesn’t want to,” said Lear, who is currently writing his autobiography. “It’s cute.”
And embarrassing for Mike and Gloria, who come out of the kitchen kissing on their way upstairs to their bedroom only to see that Archie and Edith have returned from church early. Archie is disgusted by their amorous behavior.
“Archie has this line — ’11:10 on a Sunday morning,’” Lear said. “The network wouldn’t go with that line. But we won the battle and I went with the line.”
Archie might have feared minorities, but he couldn’t get away from them at work or even next door, where the Jeffersons, an African American family who owned a dry cleaners, lived. To make matters worse for Archie, Mike was Polish and a liberal. And when Archie got frustrated, which was often, he would tell Edith to “stifle” herself and call her a dingbat.
Though he was a bigot, Lear said, Archie wasn’t a bad man. Archie’s opinions softened and audiences got to see the man behind the bluster as the series progressed. Archie, Lear said, “was just afraid.” That fear was reflected in the title song, “Those Were the Days,” sung by O’Connor and Stapleton, and written by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams of “Bye Bye Birdie” fame.
“Archie was afraid of tomorrow,” Lear said. “That was his big problem. He was afraid of the progress that brought black families into his neighborhood. They wrote a song out of that and it served the show beautifully.”
Lear developed the series from the hit British comedy show “Till Death Us Do Part,” which revolved around a bigoted dockworker and his family, but he never saw the British series until “All in the Family” went on the air. The British counterpart, Lear said, “had none of the softness” of “All in the Family.”
The basis for Archie, Lear said, was his own father, who would call Lear “the laziest white kid he ever met. So I would yell back at him, ‘Dad, you are putting down a whole race of people to call me lazy.’”
Lear noted that that ABC’s Emmy Award-winning comedy series “Modern Family” deals with “modern problems of a kind.” But “All in the Family” was more topical.
“We paid a lot of attention to what was going on inside our families,” he said. “What were our kids’ problems, what were our problems and what were the problems we were reading about every day that impacted us and impacted our friends.”
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